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Fire threat makes history
Though not the largest or costliest ever, last week’s blaze posed the most danger to Jackson.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: September 19, 2012
When the Horsethief Canyon Fire raged early last week, it threatened Jackson more than any wildfire in history, officials and past firefighters said.
In the town’s 118 years, only the historic Snow King Fire, of which little is known, came close, said Clayton Caden, a researcher and archivist at the Jackson Hole Historical Society.
“As far as fires in the valley that have threatened the town of Jackson, this would be the first major incident in recorded history,” Caden said. “We know that Snow King got wiped out by fire in the late 1800s, but there’s no recorded history of it.”
Because Jackson’s Hole Courier, the newspaper of the day, burned down in a 1914 town fire, no accurate records of Snow King blaze exist, Caden said.
“Other fire-related incidents are nowhere close to the scale of this,” Caden said. “They’re just minor.”
The human-caused Horsethief Canyon Fire, which started Sept. 8, was 82 percent contained and covered 3,373 acres as of Tuesday.
Growth has slowed to a trickle, and fire managers were increasingly confident control lines surrounding the blaze would hold.
“We feel like we’ve got a pretty good handle on it,” Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Willy Watsabaugh said Tuesday. “Obviously, we’ve reduced the threat to Jackson.”
To date, the Horsethief Canyon Fire has cost $7.1 million to corral and burned one county engine.
At its worst, on Sept. 10., the blaze was pushing hard toward two trigger points — one in Cache Creek and one on Snow King Mountain — that would have brought mandatory evacuations for thousands living in southeast Jackson.
Firefighters made a key stand Sept. 9 when the fire was in Smith Canyon and heading north toward Jackson. They turned the blaze to the south and east.
“We applied a fair bit of retardant and put people in there to check it up and secure that piece of line,” Watsabaugh said. “A lot of that was because the winds aligned more east to west rather than the typical winds that are out of the southwest, but it was also some doggone good strategy and tactics.”
Later, after a fast-growing spot fire emerged to the northeast the afternoon of Sept. 9, firefighters again stepped up, holding critical lines overnight less than two miles south of town.
The efforts should go down in the annals of Jackson Hole fire fighting.
Louis Leisinger, who worked as a fire boss at times during his 35 years with the U.S. Forest Service, corroborates claims that Horsethief Canyon is one for the record books.
He said the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson historically has been lucky when it comes to wildfires.
“We didn’t have many fires, just small ones,” said Leisinger, who is now 29 years into retirement. “We used to call it the asbestos forest. That’s a fact.”
In 1949, there was a much smaller — and eerily similar — fire started in Wilson Canyon, Leisinger said.
“They both started by burning in a barrel,” he said. “It was a small fire. We put it out by hand with shovels.”
The former fire boss said large fires were harder to handle during his tenure because the equipment was more rudimentary. At the same time, the built environment more sparse, he said.
“That’s one thing,” Leisinger said. “There was no houses in this country hardly. This was paradise.”
“There’s been lot of changes,” he said. “Nowadays, everybody wants to be a firefighter. If they had to do it like we did, boy ... we had packhorses, we had cross-cut saws. It could be rough going.
“Now they got helicopters and bring in hotshot crews from all over the country,” he said. “Boy, there’s a difference.”
Over the decades, there have been some chinks in the abestos forest’s armor.
Joan Anzelmo, a retired national park superintendent and one-time Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman, was the fire information officer for the 2001 Green Knoll Fire, which ripped through more than 4,600 acres south of Wilson. No houses were lost, but 150 were threatened.
Anzelmo likened being in Jackson Hole that year to living in a “war zone.”
“In modern time — I’ve been in the area since 1995 — I don’t recall fires other than the Green Knoll and Horsethief Canyon fire that were quite such a threat to the community,” she said.
“We dodged a bullet this year, at least it feels like it,” she said.
Other major fires that have moved through Jackson Hole without threatening town include the Mormon Row Fire in 1994 and Blacktail Fire in 2003, Anzelmo said.
Successful combating Horsethief Canyon won’t soon be forgotten by Watsabaugh, who’s been with Jackson Hole Fire/EMS for 36 years.
“For me, personally, you bet, I would say it’s a career fire,” Watsabaugh said.
Watsabaugh suggested that the valley’s good fortune with structure-damaging fires is related to the lack of dense pine forest with beetle-killed trees near town.
“Frankly, it’s because they’re not large fires,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, if you look at [the fire database] Inciweb and look at the fires that are burning around the West, Green Knoll was not a large fire. This isn’t a large fire.”
Speaking from Game Creek, Watsabaugh was upbeat about wrapping up containment on Horsethief Canyon, which is anticipated by the end of the week.
“We haven’t had any injuries, we haven’t lost and structures and everything’s going pretty well,” the fire chief said. “I feel very fortunate to be part of a team that was able to do that.”